The Imperial War Museum stands proudly in the leafy suburb of Lambeth, south east London, protected by two magnificent naval guns pointed upward and poised to thwart an imaginary foe. My previous visits to this iconic structure have always left me feeling incredibly proud of our armed services, and in particular how we stood resolute against the evil Nazi regime in the Second World War.
But this time was different, and as I left the building, I felt profoundly sad and hollow. The reason for this change of perspective? This time there was a war raging in the Ukraine – a conflict having a tangible effect on my life. My respect for any military person whose job it is to protect the rest of us from harm will never diminish – and too many of my friends have given up their personal security to do just that ─ but this time the angle at which I looked through this prism of humankind had altered.
From World War I to Baghdad
Surveying the main hall from the vantage point of the entrance staircase, I drank in the iconic machinery of war. The sublime Supermarine Spitfire and the vile V (Vengeance) 2 rocket were the obvious points of reference, but evidence of recent conflicts was apparent too, including the remains of a car used by a suicide bomber to slaughter 38 people and maim over a hundred innocents in a Baghdad street in 2007.
Walking into the First World War exhibition was the catalyst for my change of composure; also referred to as The Great War, its erstwhile accolade was that it was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It only later became known as the First as, unbeknown to anyone then, a second global conflict was only a matter of years away. Reading the historical scripts, I was struck by the context of early twentieth century Britain; enormously wealthy, yet millions of citizens lived in poverty. Inequality and division were rife and a small unrepresentative cohort of old white men called the shots from the relative safety of the Houses of Parliament.
The profanity of war erupted around me as I saw the sepia-tone photographs of legions of young men, the vast majority of whom had perished in the sheer carnage of this terrible theatre of war. Yet the wartime propaganda was utterly relentless, and if you were a man your expected duty was to enlist. Excluding those too young (although many enlisted by lying about their age) or too old to fight, those that didn’t, and were not in protected occupations, faced a consistent and coordinated character assassination. White feathers ─ a sign of cowardice – were delivered to those who dared deny the euphoric call to arms.
World War II
The floor dedicated to the Second World War depicted a similar narrative, with weapons of war much more sophisticated in their capability to massacre on an industrial scale. But division reached the insidious levels of genocide. People deemed to be inferior were segregated from the remaining populace and exterminated. The Holocaust exhibition is an intensely poignant place that attempts to reflect the barbarity of those who choose war.
The emotional elevation can only by experienced by being there and, although this was not my first time, I couldn’t contain my horror at what human beings can do to one another. Yet war is the ultimate force majeure that creates a vision of the worthy and the unworthy. The experimentation on children by Josef Mengele was – in my opinion – the most gut-wrenchingly insidious.
Yet this monumental act of aggression was ended without the envisioned thousand years’ domination by the German Third Reich. A painting of the Nuremberg trials, by Laura Knight, in which members of the Nazi regime were tried for crimes against humanity, simply repeated the earlier narrative of an isolated group of old white men indoctrinating an entire nation. Did the of conclusion of both World Wars signal the cessation of future warfare? And was the colossal loss of life in any way equal to the supposed gains? The answers are obvious.
War: in human DNA?
As I headed back home, I began to question the very essence of humanity and wondered if we are the only species that undertakes such action. Do other animals wage warfare? For me personally, the most compelling evidence of the natural affinity for peace amongst the animal kingdom is explored by Abdullahi Ahmed Yusuf, entomologist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. In acknowledging, for example, that ants prey on termites, his determination is that it’s a hunting strategy and not what we would call conventional warfare. I suspect that other predatory animals reflect this approach, as opposed to the human desire ─ not to hunt, but to dominate.
Is the straightforward explanation simply that humans are hot wired for warfare? A DNA sequence that automatically activates this trait in certain circumstances? According to R. Brian Ferguson, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark, the short answer is no. There is absolutely no scientific proof that we have a built-in tendency to terminate others at scale.
Food for thought
As I agonised over the reality and obscenity of war, my mind flashed back to those groups of old men ─ the ones that govern us – and there I began to muster a more convincing conclusion. I was, nonetheless, still bewildered and despondent at the utter brutality of any war and the eventual outcomes that will never compensate for the human sacrifice of those who typically sit outside our governing class.
I wondered too, was there a hidden meaning in the choice for the location of this particular museum? It was once nicknamed Bedlam (meaning, amongst other things, mayhem, chaos, disorder, and turmoil), since it housed Bethlem Royal Psychiatric Hospital.
But there is one thing I am even more assured of now ─ the next line of the 1970 Edwin Starr hit that I chose to introduce this piece (War: what is it good for?):
Whatever persuasion you hold, I would urge you to visit The Imperial War Museum and take a moment to reflect on what it is to be human.
This article was first published by Ian Kirke in his blog ‘What should we talk about today?’ Read the original article.